As parents, it is our job to teach our children important life lessons. We teach them everything from how to treat others to how to tie their shoes. But amidst all of this “being the expert,” it can be easy to forget that our kids have lessons to teach us as well. And I’m not talking about warm and fuzzy stuff like smelling roses and dancing like no one is watching. (Do not be fooled. People are always watching.) In a very practical sense, kids can teach us certain things that we tend to lose sight of as we age. Specifically, I’m talking about how to embrace our creativity.
When it comes to creative pursuits, kids follow Yoda’s teachings: “Do or do not. There is no try.” They don’t try to finger paint. They dip their chubby little fingers knuckle-deep into that paint and fling it like Jackson Pollock. They don’t try to write poetry. They just write it. They don’t let minor details such as spelling, grammar or coherency get in their way. When they tell you a knock-knock joke, they are standup comedians. When they pick up a blob of clay, they become fine sculptors. Have you ever seen a 4-year-old transform into a mixed-media master while up to his eyeballs in construction paper and googly eyes? It’s a beautiful thing.
Fading of the fairy dust
Unfortunately, this magical sprinkling of I’m-good-enough fairy dust usually wears off somewhere between 5 and 8 years old. This is when kids start to worry that their drawing of the elephant doesn’t look like the one in the book or that the way they sing “Roar” sounds different from Katy Perry’s version. As a parent, you can see this change take place. It’s like watching a light go off. Whatever gatekeeper has kept the self-consciousness away walks off the job, and doubt swoops in to take its place, all furrowed eyebrows and straight lines. Kids stop doing things and start trying to do things. And though this might be OK when it comes to sports or schoolwork (things that require mastery before advancement), when it comes to free-form creativity, it’s kind of sad.
Instinctively, we know this isn’t a good thing. We don’t want their light to go out. We don’t want them to hold their creations to someone else’s standard of perfection because we’ve been there, and we know that is the surest way to run the well dry. So we say to them, “Don’t worry about coloring inside the lines, honey.” But they still look at their picture like it’s a plate of boiled onions because even though we are saying one thing, too often we are doing another. How many times have we obsessed over wrapping a gift just so? Or tried to make a project as perfect as it looks on Pinterest, only to ultimately fail and lament it out loud? How many times have we said, “I’m just not very creative”? Our kids hear that, and they absorb it. They watch us judge ourselves, and because they view themselves as an extension of us, they apply those judgments internally. (Or completely rebel against them, but that’s a subject for another day.)
So I think the best way to protect our kids’ innate creativity is to learn from them — and do as they do. Children know that creativity has nothing to do with being good at something. It has nothing to do with skill or talent or ability. It has nothing to do with perfect. Creativity made up of 100 percent confidence: the confidence to do instead of try. If you want to be a writer, write. If you want to be a painter, paint. If you want to be a dancer, dance. Even if someone is watching (because they are, and it’s probably your kids). The surest way to keep your child’s light shining is to turn yours back on. So listen to them, and listen to Yoda. “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”
About the youthfully challenged:
“Grandpa, are you the oldest person in our family?”
“Yes, honey, I am.”
“So you’ll be dead first.”
— Ryan, age 5, to his grandpa on his 70th birthday
At Grandparents’ Day at school, a student was asked where in the room his grandparents were sitting. He pointed and replied, “They’re the old people in the back.”
— Nate, age 10
A homemade Mother’s Day card for his mom read:
“What my mom does all day:
1. Does chores.
2. Washes laundry.
3. Sleeps with Dad.”
— Ryan, age 5
After his sister throws a fit that results in soy sauce spilling all over the kitchen floor, 4-year-old Leo watches his mom clean up. She is clearly frustrated and mumbling slightly to herself. He clears his throat to announce his presence, shakes his head and says, “Well, Mom, that’s what you get when you have kids.”
— Leo, age 4
About bad language:
Leah: Mom, what does the “S” word mean?
Mom: It’s a bad way to say poop.
Leah: Really? “Shut-up” means poop?
— Leah, age 7
About likes and dislikes:
A TSA agent, who is checking in a family at the airport after a long flight, looks at this little girl wearing her Disney Princess PJs and says: “Hello, little lady. Who is your favorite princess?”
The little girl looks back at him with a completely straight face and says, “Me.”
— Kate, age 4
I was holding a green apple my daughter had asked me to peel for a snack. Her friend was over, and I asked her how she liked her apples, wondering if she liked skin on or skin off. She looked at the apple in my hands, then back to me and said, “Red.”
— Evie, age 4
Every night before bed, 3-year-old Shepard asked his mom to make up a story about something specific (trains, fire trucks, animals, etc.). One night, his mom asked him what kind of story he wanted, and he said, “Make it a steamy one.” He wanted a steam-train story.
— Shepard, age 3
While on a particularly long and hot family hike through Rocky Mountain National Park, everyone was getting tired — everyone except the dad. He took a deep breath and exclaimed, “Mm, I love the smell of pine!”
His daughter didn’t miss a beat when she took her own deep breath and said, “Mm, I love the smell of air-conditioning!”
— Mary Kate, age 11